Film noir is Guillermo del Toro’s first feature film since winning the Oscars for The Shape of Water. It stars Bradley Cooper as a traveling “medium”, who sets up a scam to extort their fortunes from wealthy clients.
The story of the film is taken from a novel by William Lindsay Gresham, already adapted to the cinema in 1947. We follow Stan Carlisle (Bradley Cooper) joining the troupe of the fair and quickly becoming a master in the art of mentalism. But he grows tired of tricking ordinary customers using the coded messages exchanged with his assistant Molly (Rooney Mara). Stan meets a psychiatrist, femme fatale played by Cate Blanchett, with whom he tricks millionaires wishing to converse in the afterlife with dead loves. “There is an emptiness in him, and a need to have more, more and always more”, explains Guillermo del Toro.
“It is an indictment of a certain form of ambition, a certain form of capitalism or the exploitation of others”, summarizes the actor Willem Dafoe, who plays the huckster in charge of attracting the barge, Clem Hoately. “It was a wonderful world, if a little dark”, he said at a press conference. The actor explains that he was seduced by this project by del Toro, a director who often places at the heart of his films “creatures, misfits, monsters and other people outside our society”. “He humanizes these people and provokes our understanding and compassion in all his films”, Dafoe said.
With The Shape of Water (Oscar for best feature film and best director in 2018), the Mexican filmmaker spun a metaphor on racism and the rejection of those who are different through an impossible love story set in a military laboratory during the Cold War.
Nightmare Alley may take place in the 1940s, for him it is above all a film capturing “the anguish of our time”. “We didn’t want to make a film about this period, but about the present”, he assures. “This moment where we are and where we have to make the difference between true story, false story and reality, it is so important”, insists the director.
The film, a strong candidate for the next Oscars, was noted for the performances of Bradley Cooper and Cate Blanchett, as well as for its extravagant sets. For the needs of the film, the director had a life-size replica of the great American fairgrounds of the time built, with a circus tent and pavilions.
In particular, there are “geek shows” in which unfortunate people were pushed to perform acts as repugnant as they were degrading, such as decapitating a chicken with their teeth, in exchange for a little alcohol or drugs.
“We built the entire fairground. And when we were halfway there, the Covid hit. When we came back, we found that half of the tents had been blown by the wind”, recalls production designer Tamara Deverell. Willem Dafoe, who was attracted to the universe as a child “darkly romantic” fairgrounds, says he was inspired for his performance by all these very detailed and realistic sets.